Bryant vs. Bentonville: Someone’s going to win their first State fast-pitch crown

By Rob Patrick

Bentonville Lady Tigers softball coach Kent Early has heard all about the fact that since the Bryant Lady Hornets were in the Class 7A State Tournament final a year ago (when they lost to arch-rival North Little Rock 7-1), they have a considerable advantage.

Bryant’s back this year and they’ll take on Early’s Lady Tigers on Saturday at 2 p.m., at the University of Arkansas’ Bogle Park.[more]

“They’re returning everybody that played in the State title game last year,” Early said. “Bryant’s certainly more talented than we are but we’ll show up and play and give it our best shot.”

The coach’s assessment notwithstanding, Bryant head coach Debbie Stepp related, “They are well-coached and I know that they have some speed because one of my former players at Wynne is their leadoff hitter and plays second base. They have a couple of good power hitters and they’re going to be competitive team for us.”

Stepp, however, agreed that last year’s experience should be an advantage for her team which is still mostly sophomores.

“I think it is,” she acknowledged. “We worked out at Hendrix today and met with the assistant coach and she played at Hope. They played three times and lost their first time then won it back to back. She told the girls that she felt like they had an advantage because, having been there, they know what it’s like. She said, now, this year you can just go and have fun.

“It’s not like the deer in the headlights this year,” Stepp asserted. “They know what to expect, they know the field, they know about the crowd and how it feels.”

The Lady Hornets bring a 25-2 overall record into the contest. Bentonville is 23-5. Each was the top seed from their respective conferences with 13-1 marks.

Bentonville reached the finals by outlasting Russellville, 3-2 in 10 innings then ousting the defending champion Lady Charging Wildcats, 7-3.

Bryant edged Fort Smith Southside 3-0 and rolled to an 11-3 win over Cabot. None of the runs in those two games was earned against Bryant pitcher Peyton Jenkins whom, Stepp says, has been a key to the team’s success this year.

“It’s got to be the fact that Peyton’s done such a good job on the mound,” she said. “We make the routine plays and our bats. I think our offensive power is one of our greatest strengths.”

The Lady Hornets are led by catcher Jessie Taylor’s 10 homers. Shanika Johnson has slugged 5 but the team’s forte is doubles. As a team, they’ve racked up 51 doubles to go with 19 homers.

The speed the Stepp mentioned when she spoke about Bentonville is most evident in Meg McGuirt, who has stolen 49 bases this season and set a new state record with 101 in her career. The power comes from Alex Sullivan who set a new state standard with 14 home runs this season.

Early downplayed his pitching as well but Kaisha Arnold stopped North Little Rock on just six hits Tuesday.

“She’s not very fast at all, about 51 miles an hour,” he said. “It just depends on the day (what she’ll throw).

“Everybody’s been contributing and that’s been the helpful thing,” he added.

Neither school has had a State champion in softball since Arkansas went to fast pitch exclusively in 2000. Before that Bryant has won three straight slow-pitch titles from 1997 to 1999.

This will be the Lady Hornets’ fourth trip to the State finals in the top classification, including last year. They made it in 2005 (when it was Class AAAAA) but lost to Saline County rival Benton, 4-2. They got back there in 2006 — avenging their loss to Benton along the way — but fell to Fayetteville 4-0.

In 2007, the team made a run again, reaching the semifinals despite being plagued by internal strife.

This will be Bentonville’s first championship game. The two teams have never met during State tourney play.

Asked what he’s advised his team about the new experience, Early said, “Soak it in, enjoy the moment.”

Stepp, meanwhile, has continued to have her team visualize success.

“I think that they’ve bought into it,” she related. “I think they understand especially after the game against Cabot the other night with our visualization process in the dugout then so many good things happened to them especially at the plate. I’ve had them visualize and anybody that wasn’t quite a believer, became a believer.”

And, of course, ya gotta believe.


At Cabot

Friday, May 14

Game 1 — Russellville (14-11) (Central 4) 4, Rogers Heritage (16-12) (West 5) 2 (Field 1)

Game 2 — Fort Smith Southside (11-13) (West 4) 3, Conway (6-16) (Central 5) 2 (Field 2)

Game 3 — Fayetteville (17-9) (West 3) 11, Van Buren (9-16) (Central 6) 1 (Field 1)

Game 4 — Cabot (20-9) (Central 3) 10, Springdale (10-14) (West 6) 0 (Field 2)

Saturday, May 15

Game 5 — Bentonville (21-5) (West 1) 3, Russellville (15-11) 2 (10 innings) (Field 2)

Game 6 — Bryant (23-2) (Central 1) 3, Fort Smith Southside (12-13) 0 (Field 1)

Game 7 — North Little Rock (25-3) (Central 2) 6, Fayetteville (18-9) 5 (9 innings) (Field 2)

Game 8 — Cabot (21-9) 9, Springdale Har-Ber (20-5) (West 2) 1 (Field 1)

Monday, May 17

Game 9 — Bentonville (22-5) 7, North Little Rock (26-3) 3 (Field 1)

Game 10 — Bryant (24-2) 11, Cabot (22-9) 3 (Field 1)

State Championship game

At Bogel Park, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

Saturday, May 22

Game 11 — Bryant (25-2) vs. Bentonville (23-5), 2 p.m.

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